Surviving the Narcissistic Mother
The Results of narcissism can extend beyond the person onto future generations
While reading about this year’s most popular words, I noticed that the word narcissism appeared at the top of the list. Why this word would be considered popular could probably be the subject of another blog. The dictionary defines narcissism as “excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one’s physical appearance.” Some synonyms are self-love, self-absorption, self-admiration, and self-obsession.
Elizabeth Lesser, the founder of the Omega Institute and one of my favorite writers, says in her book The Seeker’s Guide (1999) that there’s a thin line between narcissism and “following your bliss” in the sense that self-discovery can lead to self-indulgence and an over fascination with the self. Interestingly, she says that narcissists think that just because they’re on a path of self-examination, everyone else should be.
I think that a person can be on a path of self-discovery and not be a narcissist, but rather, simply be someone who’s trying to reach one’s full potential. Not everyone on a spiritual path will do so at the cost of hurting others; they may just want to be the best they can be. However, it’s true that sometimes healers, teachers, clergy, and therapists can get wrapped up in narcissism because they also become advocates of the individual and get wrapped up in their client’s lives.
For years when I would talk about my mother, I referred to her as a narcissist. It was my way of saying that she was self-involved and that her needs always came first. When my kids were younger, I was often reluctant to let her babysit for them because I feared that if her dog and my kids ran off into a busy street, she would probably save her dog before my children. This was my perception of her narcissism.
I eventually stopped calling her a narcissist because I’ve become less comfortable with labels for mental challenges, and am now more comfortable simply describing specific characteristics. One quality common among narcissists is that they often come across as arrogant. Similar to my mother, they also tend to have a lack empathy for others. They appear to have high self-esteem, but my sense is that deep inside they’re insecure.
Peg Streep, a very successful and popular Psychology Today blogger, wrote an interesting article on the subject, called, “Daughters of Unloving Mothers: 7 Common Wounds,” and also wrote the compelling book Mean Mothers. Although she says that every woman’s story is different, women who have unloving mothers often find one other, and their stories unite them. She says that there are ramifications for girls who grow up to be adult daughters of unloving mothers; however, a great deal depends on whether these girls have other women to love them in lieu of their moms. Luckily, my loving grandmother lived with us and was my caretaker, but it’s inevitable that I still sought the love and affection of my mother. No matter what form it took, I always tried to impress her, to no avail. My mother ridiculed and often embarrassed me in public. To my friends, she appeared to be a “cool mother” because she dressed in a hip style and went horseback riding twice a week, but behind closed doors she was another person — often taking advantage of my weaknesses — which led to a great deal of verbal abuse as well as avoidance issues.
Streep says that early attachments form our internal templates, and I completely agree with her. I’ve learned not to trust women, or at least, to trust them less than I do men. I was always able to trust my father, as he was always there for me, and unlike my mother, he was very predictable and reliable.
Streep succinctly sums up some of the characteristics of daughters raised by narcissistic mothers: lacking in self-confidence, lacking trust in others, difficulty setting boundaries, difficulty seeing themselves accurately, leaning toward avoidance, being overly sensitive, and the classic situation of duplicating the mother bond in adult relationships.
Will any of you readers join me in this category? I would love to hear from you!
Lesser, E. (1999). The Seeker’s Guide. New York, NY: Villard.
Streep, P. (2009). Mean Mothers. New York, NY: Willia
Originally published at www.psychologytoday.com.